Los Angeles Times

Thursday, October 23, 1997

A Lawmaker's Firsthand View of the Bilingual Issue

SACRAMENTO--Seared in Assemblywoman Martha Escutia's memory are the cruel taunts she endured as a fourth-grader at Rowan Avenue Elementary School in East L.A. "Kids called me 'wetback,' " she recalls. "Mean-spirited kids. Mexican American kids.      "Immigrant kids suffer because of Mexican American kids. It seems once you get here, you have a pull-the-plank mentality."
     Escutia, now 40, really was not an immigrant kid. She was born in Los Angeles. But by the fourth grade, she had lived for two years in Mexico and had forgotten all her English. So she was treated as a new immigrant by the other kids.
     In the earliest grades, Martha each day had gone from a Spanish-speaking home to an English-only school in East L.A. "I did well picking up the [English] language," she says. "But when I was about 8, my family said, 'My God, she's not learning Spanish the proper way. She's learning English.' And they sent me to school in Mexico City, where I was taught only in Spanish.
     "I came back speaking only Spanish. I remember very clearly sitting in classes not knowing a single word that was being said. And it was an awful, awful feeling. And I will never forget that. I went through a lot of suffering."
     It lasted about six months. Fortunately, she had a dedicated teacher who worked with her after school, speaking in Spanish and translating back into English. "She unlocked my English," Escutia says. "I picked it up right away. I even skipped a grade."
     And she went to USC and Georgetown University and became a lawyer. And now she is an influential legislator--she heads the Assembly Judiciary Committee--and represents Bell, where her grandfather once worked in a steel mill, but couldn't live, Escutia says, "because then it was whites-only."
     Some might read into this American Dream story a lesson: that the best way for non-English-speaking kids to learn the language is to sink or swim--or, as it's variously called in the ed biz, "total immersion" or "submersion." But Escutia doesn't read it that way at all.
     "I did well picking up language. Republicans love to call me the model minority," the Democratic lawmaker says. "But my sister and cousins had a very hard time. For every one of me, there must be 10 who don't succeed."
     She and the other Latino legislators still believe there's a place for bilingual education in California schools, although many are sharply critical of the present system--usually more privately than they are publicly.
     Escutia calls the current system "a symbolic inheritance of the '60s," adding: "It's almost like a sacred cow.
     "The moment I started questioning people--saying, 'It's not working out, many parents are complaining to me their kids are being put into bilingual classes just because of their names'--they started putting me down. They'd look at me like I was kind of weird. They would say I did not know enough about it. They'd look at me like true teachers, a little bit condescending, like they know everything. I would say, 'I'm sorry. You tell that to my [district's] parents. My parents are telling me their kids are not learning English.' "
     Who are they? "People who have a vested interest, bilingual educators," she says.
     "There's a perverse incentive to keep kids in bilingual education because schools get more money from the federal government. There ought to be a reverse incentive. Give more money for mainstreaming kids out of bilingual education--but only if they can test proficient in English."
     And that's the rub for Escutia and other lawmakers not willing to give up on bilingual education. They want more testing, better teacher training, schools held responsible, and much less time spent in bilingual classes.
     But they already may have lost the war.
     The so-called English for the Children initiative, pushed by wealthy computer entrepreneur Ron Unz, would dismantle the present bilingual system and replace it with something closer to sink or swim. Enough signatures already have been collected to qualify the measure for the June ballot, sponsors say. And a Times poll last week showed it being supported by 80% of the voters.
     Against that political reality, the Legislature--Democrats, at least--will scramble in January to pass an alternative bill. Republicans, however, may have lost any enthusiasm for compromise because they see a political winner in the Unz initiative.
     Escutia is one of several legislators trying to negotiate. She's not the only Latino lawmaker who can tell a childhood story about "language lockout." Each has an emotional tie to bilingual education and will fight to preserve it.
     But the Legislature again may have waited too long to act.